Call it minstrelsy or blackface, just don’t call it history. Donning black makeup and acting out a racial stereotype—a Jamaican drug dealer, a shackled slave, a black celebrity—is as enduringly American as apple pie (slathered in chocolate ice cream). Recent examples include college campuses recoiling at blackface charades enacted by their students. And government employees dabbling in bronzer. These days, however, troupes of blackface performers no longer tour the country, and blackfaced actors no longer appear in big-budget Hollywood films. Right? Wait a minute, what about this summer’s Tropic Thunder?
Yes, that’s Robert Downey Jr. in black makeup, and, of course, we all love Robert Downey Jr. Almost as much as we love black makeup. But let’s look for nuance.
First, Downey’s character in Tropic Thunder: He plays a white actor who undergoes a sort of blackfacing surgery to play a black character in a war movie within the action comedy. I suppose this set-up satirizes movie roles that project black stereotypes to begin with—a brush of parody over Downey’s blackface—but... Really? They couldn’t come up with any other jokes? I know mainstream comedy recycles past yucks over and over again, but haven't we gone down this road enough?
Then again, the Tropic Thunder trailer made me laugh, even Downey’s racial mugging, which seems sly and knowing (might it be a case of having your cake and eating it, too?). What’s more, the movie has that patina of respectable Hollywood artistry, in no small part because hard-edged absurdity-guru Ethan Cohen shares credit for the screenplay, which was cowritten by the film's director, Ben Stiller. So, there’s likely some wit and intelligence nestled in between the action and broad comedy. The question of whether or not the movie is offensive will have to wait until we fork over nine bucks to see it. In other words, it looks like money in the bank. And isn’t that what blackface is really all about?